Tiger, tiger, burning bright

Jeff Greenwald describes a blood-curdling encounter with a tiger in one of Nepal's wildlife parks preserves -- and a disgraceful display of fake contraband-burning by Nepalese authorities.

By Jeff Greenwald
Published April 8, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

I'm licking my wounds, and scratching a constellation of mysterious bites. Just returned from a few days in Chitwan, a huge wildlife park in the Terai, Nepal's steamy southern zone. I reached the place via a combination of vehicles, the most interesting of which was a rubber raft. Spent about four hours going down the rain-swollen Trisuli River, navigating about a dozen rapids (most of them embarrassingly tame) and swallowing several gallons of amoeba-infested river water in the process.

I made the trip to check out Temple Tiger, one of just two resort/lodges within the boundaries of the national park. Over the years I've visited Chitwan three or four times, but this was far and away the prettiest part of the jungle I'd seen. There was a kind of sweetness there, an Impressionist softness to the air and the light. The elephant grass had been cut low by the local Tharu villagers, making it relatively easy to spot the one-horned rhinos who grazed, snorting, by the water holes. I spent most of my time riding through the jungle on elephantback, accompanied by a local guide and naturalist named Jitu.

Someday I'll return to Chitwan and write a book about Jitu. Now 34, he grew up in Sauraha, on the border of the national park. He is a small, muscular man with the perfect features of a Tharu Omar Sharif. Jitu's encounters with the local wildlife are legendary, and I have no doubt they are true. Once -- on a jungle walk, on foot, with a group of hapless Dutch tourists -- he stumbled upon a tiger with its mate. The female charged, but Jitu didn't panic; he knew that running away would be fatal. He stood his ground, smacked his walking stick against a bush, and shouted at the top of his lungs. The tiger screeched to a halt, growling, and Jitu slowly backed the group away. On another occasion, while walking to the lodge he worked at previous to Temple Tiger, Jitu realized that a female Bengal, along with her cub, was stalking him. The cats followed the lone Jitu for 45 minutes, sometimes alongside, sometimes creeping behind. "If I'd run, or tried to climb a tree, they would have immediately attacked," he said. "So I just kept walking, while whistling and talking to myself." Eventually the tigers moved on -- as the unperturbed naturalist knew they would.

"Humans are not the tiger's prey," Jitu told me with conviction. "They will not attack unless threatened -- or unless they have lost the ability to hunt their usual prey."

This has happened. About 10 years ago, Jitu recalled, the only other lodge within Chitwan's limits -- Tiger Tops -- made a practice of baiting tigers with live animals. A juvenile buffalo or goat would be tethered in a clearing, and one of the local tigers would saunter in for the kill. Tourists watched from a blind. This practice was ultimately abandoned -- not out of compassion for the prey, but because tigers fed this way would gain weight and lose their prowess. Finally, the only animals within their range were domestic cattle -- and humans. One of the tigers fed on baited game actually became a man-eater -- and introduced her cub to the taste of human flesh. The two animals were responsible for a number of killings in the area. The tiger cub was eventually captured and transferred to a Kathmandu zoo. The other cat may still be at large -- a fact that Jitu no doubt repressed while he was being stalked.

Jitu didn't sit in the wooden howdah with me. He stood behind, balanced on the elephant's haunches. We rocked and swayed and crunched through the jungle, stopping every now and then as our pachyderm paused to uproot a stray banana tree (which he ate whole, minus the bananas) or drink a stream dry. It was blissful, in that jungle fever way: lush and hot, an ecstatic buzz of chlorophyll and pheromones. The orchids were beginning to bloom, and the air smelled of jasmine, chlorodendron and musk. Peacocks screamed from the treetops, sounding like plaintive Siamese cats. There are 450 species of birds in the park; every expedition is accompanied by the "Jungle Book" soundtrack. The colors were fleeting, but intense. Kingfishers sat on the tree branches, looking like Navajo turquoise fruit. Chestnut-headed bee-eaters swooped above our heads, iridescent gold and green. Our first morning, Jitu and I spied a troupe of white-haired, black-faced langur monkeys climbing through a red-leafed honey tree; a spotted deer, unfazed by our presence, grazed below. It was a scene right out of Gaugin. I imagined, inanely of course, that one of the park's elusive tigers could walk into the scene without raising a stir.

This is the big problem, of course: actually seeing a tiger. Like most visitors, I desperately wanted to do so. But it's tough; at last census, only 66 Royal Bengal Tigers had been counted within the entire 190-square-mile Chitwan preserve. There are perhaps four or five adult tigers within Temple Tiger's 25-square-mile piece of the jungle. They're notoriously reclusive, and masters of stealth and camouflage. It had been four or five days, Jitu told me, since the last good spotting.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

My second day in the park, Jitu and I set off at dawn. The sun rose like
a squashed persimmon over the jungle mists. Aside from the hooting of
invisible Indian cuckoos, the only sound was the pulping of leaves
beneath the elephant's feet. It was one of those mornings when almost
nothing seemed to be awake. I saw no deer, no monkeys, no wild boar or
mugger crocodiles; just the inevitable rhinos, grazing dumbly in the
long grass. We were following the foot trail back to camp when Jitu,
perched on the rear haunches of the pachyderm, quietly signaled the
driver to stop. Jitu jumped off the elephant and squinted at the sandy
path, reading a pattern in what was -- to me -- unintelligible sandy
soil. But Jitu recognized the paw prints of a tiger, along with the
telltale drag marks of freshly-killed prey. He climbed back on our
mount and we hung a right into the jungle.

What followed was the most amazing example of tracking I have ever seen.
Using his sight, smell and hearing -- as well as a sixth sense developed
over a lifetime in the Terai -- Jitu traced the tiger's retreat into the
bush. He pored through the foliage like a bloodhound, sniffing here,
examining a branch there, exploring false leads and doubling back again.
After 15 minutes of this, we rounded a corner -- and came within
sight of the cat's victim. A young deer lay dead in a small clearing,
its hindquarters shredded.

"From the paw prints, and the size of the kill," Jitu whispered, "I can
say it is a male, of adolescent age. But we're too late; he went into
the grass when he heard us coming."

We moved away slowly, hoping the tiger had not wandered too far from its
breakfast. Again, the crunching footfall of the elephant drowned out all
but the most strident bird calls. After two minutes, though, Jitu raised
his palm.

"I hear chewing," he said.

Jitu sniffed the air, testing for the musky, milky scent peculiar to
tigers. Then he turned the elephant silently around, heading back into
the stand of grass where we'd seen the deer.

There was a blood-curdling roar, and the tiger leaped at us from the
thicket. Our elephant -- a monster among the local pachyderms --
staggered back, but continued forward at the mahout's command.

"Jitu," I drew my feet back into the howdah, suddenly aware of how close
the ground seemed, "do tigers ever, uh, leap up onto the elephants'

"Sometimes." He shrugged. "Not often."

The tiger crouched, snarling, then ran at us a second time. Our elephant
trumpeted: a single, ear-splitting note, like Dizzy Gillespie on
steroids. I clung to the howdah. Our little safari seemed about as
clever as free-climbing into a live volcano.

But a cat is no match for an elephant; the fact is ingrained into every
feline brain. The tiger retreated again, this time for good. For a few
minutes Jitu engaged in a tense game of cat-and-mouse, trying without
success to flush him back out. It's astonishing how quickly this
jungle animal vanished into the grass. You'd think a tiger's bold black
and orange bands would stand out like an Aspen ski suit. In fact, it
seemed to become invisible at will. Though we continued to catch glimpses
of his head, body or tail, we never again saw the whole animal at once.

Nonetheless, our brief encounter with one of Chitwan's endangered tigers
was unforgettable. The beauty and ferocity of the animal was totally
thrilling. His roar had evoked the same response as an earthquake; it
made the ground tremble and awoke a primal terror that made my mouth
dry and my heart race. The oddest thing, though, was how addictive
the experience was. Sighting tigers is a lot like sniffing cocaine; the
most compelling effect is to make you desire more of the same.

So I'm home now -- to a jungle of quite another sort. Actually, it's
more like a monkey house. Here in Kathmandu, in the dry and dusty season
between the last frosts and the monsoon deluge, I sense an emerging
current of defeated self-parody. It's as if Nepal has reached a turning
point, a juncture where the local intelligentsia is finally so fed up
with the rampant corruption and choking pollution that it has decided to
pull out the stops -- and begin mocking the system in earnest.

The vanguard of this trend has been the capital's best newspaper, the
Kathmandu Post. Over the past few days, the Post has run a series of
photos and editorials that have had the local community roaring with
glee. On March 30, for example, the paper's front page displayed a
snapshot of Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa. The picture, captioned
"Shh ... Don't Disturb," showed the PM napping through a meeting on
government corruption. The same day, the editorial page carried a
hilarious article about public urination. (The practice will never be
stopped, the Op-Ed piece claimed, by the current practice of posting "Do
Not Urinate Here" signs; such signs only indicate that the spot in
question -- e.g., the side of a school building -- is a "traditional"
public urinal, and therefore a venerable and cherished peeing site.)
But the master stroke appeared on April 1, when the lead photo showed
one of Kathmandu's dubious water trucks (ostensibly used to carry kani
or pure drinking water, to private homes and hotels) sucking its
cargo directly from the Kodku Khola, one of the city's filthy urban
creeks. Believe me: This was no prank.

A less amusing example of modern-day foibles, though, came to my
attention last night, while I sat having drinks with an expatriate
anthropologist named Charles Ramble. Ramble had just returned from his
own brief trip to the Terai, where he and photographer Thomas Kelly
had covered a much-heralded event. This was the public burning, by Chitwan
authorities, of a mountain of confiscated jungle contraband: leopard
skins, endangered wild antelope wool, tiger bones
and rhinoceros horn (the last two are considered powerful aphrodisiacs
by the Chinese, who pay huge sums for the stuff). Tons of this booty was
stacked into an enormous pile, then ignited. The local press (working,
no doubt, from official releases) treated this as a watershed move -- a
bold signal that Nepal would not tolerate the poaching of protected
species or permit any measure of trade in illegal animal products.

Ramble and Kelly, who were on assignment for Asia Week, got close enough
to the bonfire to realize that something was awry. What the authorities
were burning, they discovered, was garbage: moldy old hides, fake rhino
horns, painted water buffalo skins, ersatz tiger bones. When Ramble
confronted Nepal's minister of forests about this, he was quickly set to
rights. The point of the conflagration was simply to clear out the
rangers' warehouses, which were overloaded with junk. Who had suggested

So what about the good stuff? It is being held in reserve: a king's
ransom of top-quality horns and hides, spirited away under cover of a
well-publicized smoke screen. The current line: If an agreement with
CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) can
be reached, the contraband will be sold off legally and the money will be used
to fund museums and educational programs.

If you believe that, I've got some pure drinking water to sell you.

Jeff Greenwald

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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